How to Protect Children from Bullies
Here are five expert tips for parents.
Posted Oct 22, 2015
By guest contributors Michelle K. Demaray and Christine Malecki
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and bullying is indeed a significant problem in the United States, with about 25 percent of youth reporting they have been victims, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Given its high prevalence, parents should be equipped to address bullying with their children. So what exactly can you do to determine if your child is being bullied, and how should parents respond?
As Northern Illinois University psychology professors with research expertise on bullying prevention and intervention, we’ve studied the topic and helped schools implement strategies that work. Here are our top five evidence-based recommendations for parents:
1. Communicate with your child about bullying and peer relationships. This is a very important first step because without open communication you may not know your child is experiencing bullying. The majority of children who are bullied do not tell an adult (Juvonen & Gross, 2008). By focusing on supportive communication, children may feel more comfortable telling their parents.
In addition, watch for any warning signs, such as a change in your child’s eating and sleeping behaviors, avoidance of school or other activities, or a child who is often feeling sick. If you notice these behaviors, talk with your child about them and express concern. You may need to directly ask your child about bullying. Some example questions:
- What are some good and bad things that happened at school today?
- Do you ever see kids being mean or bullying each other at school?
- Have your feelings ever been hurt by kids at school?
- What is it like to ride the bus?
2. Talk about what bullying is and what it is not. Specifically, you should talk about how bullying is different from more typical conflict with a peer:
- Bullying is mean behavior done repeatedly.
- Bullying is done by someone who has more “perceived power” in some way than the child (e.g., more popular, physically larger, smarter).
- Bullying is behavior that is done on purpose and intended to be mean.
Helping kids distinguish if a behavior is actually bullying may help them identify when they are experiencing something else, such as conflict with a friend, which is normal and can be a healthy way to learn how to get along with others. Thinking about the definition of bullying may also help parents know when a behavior has crossed the line and when more serious intervention is needed.
3. Monitor online activities. The most important thing you can do to reduce online bullying is to keep track of your child’s online behavior. Monitoring online behavior reduces the chances of a child bullying others or becoming a victim of cyber bullying (Vandebosch & Van Cleemput, 2009). This means monitoring both time spent online and the activities children are engaged in.
Set rules and log the amount of time your child spends online. Less time is better (Twyman, Saylor, Taylor, & Comeaux, 2010), and it is helpful to keep family computers in public places such as the kitchen or family room. Children should put their devices away prior to bed.
You also should have access to your child’s passwords and know what apps he or she uses. Talk to your child about ways you can monitor use of apps and websites. While it is often hard to know what apps might be appropriate, an excellent source for reviews of apps for youth can be found online at Common Sense Media.
4. Encourage empathy. You can encourage the ability to understand others’ feelings as a way to reduce the chances your child will engage in bullying or to increase the chances your child will make good choices around those who do bully (Gini, Albiero, Benelli, & Altoè, 2007). Empathy is an important skill for social relationships and encourages prosocial behavior (Roberts & Strayer, 1996). Some suggestions:
- Talk about what it would be like to be “in someone else’s shoes.” For example, if your child does reveal someone at school is being bullied, discuss how that child must be feeling.
- Model empathic behavior. For example, when watching the news, talk about how bad you feel for someone who is experiencing a hard time.
5. Respond appropriately to bullying. Listen to and be supportive of your child if he or she is the victim of bullying. Then help to problem-solve and develop strategies to deal with the bullying. It is important to:
- Document the bullying behaviors your child is experiencing.
- If the bullying is happening at school, contact the school. Be calm and focus on protecting your child and helping the school to solve the problem.
- Provide emotional support. Tell your child no one deserves to be hurt and you care. Model empathy here, too.
- Help your child learn how to proactively solve the bullying situation. Role-play the situations so they feel more practiced in how to respond.
- Make sure to get your child any necessary help or support, such as counseling.
Given the high prevalence of bullying, the problem isn’t going to disappear. But a supportive and knowledgeable parent can significantly help.
Michelle K. Demaray, Ph.D., is a professor in the School Psychology Program at Northern Illinois University. She studies social support and bullying and victimization in schools, including cyberbullying and bystander behavior in bullying.
Professor Christine Malecki, Ph.D., is director of the School Psychology Program at Northern Illinois University. She studies social support and peer relationships in children and adolescents and helps schools make changes to help students be more successful.
Gini, G., Albiero, P., Benelli, B., & Altoè, G. (2007). Does empathy predict adolescents' bullying and defending behavior? Aggressive behavior, 33, 467-476.
Juvonen, J., & Gross, E. F. (2008). Extending the school grounds?—Bullying experiences in cyberspace. Journal of School health, 78, 496-505.
Petrosino, A., Guckenburg, S., DeVoe, J., & Hanson, T. Institute of Education Sciences, (2010). What characteristics of bullying, bullying victims, and schools are associated with increased reporting of bullying to school officials? Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/regions/northeast/pdf/REL_2010092_sum.pdf.
Roberts, W., & Strayer, J. (1996). Empathy, emotional expressiveness, and prosocial behavior. Child development, 67, 449-470.
Twyman, K., Saylor, C., Taylor, L. A., & Comeaux, C. (2010). Comparing children and adolescents engaged in cyberbullying to matched peers.Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 195-199.
US Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics (2015) . Student Reports of Bullying and Cyberbullying: Results from the 2013 School Crime Supplement to the National Victimization Survey. Retrieved from:http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2015056.
Vandebosch, H., & Van Cleemput, K. (2009). Cyberbullying among youngsters: Profiles of bullies and victims. New media & society, 11, 1349-1371.